The results of a new study indicate that a return to the Moon is clearly within NASA’s reach and existing budget, providing the agency is willing to follow the commercial model employed in the COTS and CRS programs to get there.
The full title of the study, which was partially funded by a grant from NASA’s Emerging Space office in the Office of the Chief Technologist is “Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture that Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private-Partnerships.”
The key conclusion included in the Executive Summary is this:
“America could lead a return of humans to the surface of the Moon within a period of 5-7 years from authority to proceed at an estimated total cost of about $10 Billion (+/- 30%) for two independent and competing commercial service providers, or about $5 Billion for each provider, using partnership methods.”
Conducted by NextGen LLC with additional support by the National Space Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, the Evolvable Lunar Architecture, or ELA study, focuses on a three stage program for developing a lunar fuel propellant production base at the Moon’s polar regions, which are believed to store significant quantities of water ice. Critically, the report was also subjected to an independent review by an impressive panel of aerospace experts including deeply experienced NASA managers.
The full 110 page report is here, and for SpaceX fans it is a field day, as it draws heavily on data regarding the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Dragon spacecraft and SuperDraco engines. There is some love for Boeing’s CST-100 and United Launch Alliance as well, but the later’s Vulcan rocket was introduced after the study was performed.
The introductory press conference, followed by analysis is below.
Currently America’s space agency is promoting the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a controversial and mostly unfunded project to send astronauts to visit a piece of an asteroid brought to lunar orbit as a purported next stop on its “Journey to Mars.” Given that ARM came about as a result of President Obama’s 2010 cancellation of Project Constellation on the grounds that we had already been to the Moon and Congressional insistence that the nation build the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft despite the absence of any clear mission to justify the expense, NASA’s participation in the ELA study may seem a bit strange, but that is where the context matters.
The ostensible logic is that a commercially developed lunar fuel plant could provide much of the resources needed to mount a theoretical mission to Mars using SLS/Orion sometime in the late 2030’s. In addition to giving some much needed ground operational experience, the lunar base would significantly reduce the number of SLS missions required to mount each sortie to Mars. While the merits of going to Mars by way of the Moon are an incessant feature of debate within space circles, getting caught up in that argument misses the real point of the study. Strip away the veneer, and what comes through is a compelling case to redirect not an asteroid, but NASA itself, to be used as a starting point for the next Administration regardless of which party takes the White House.
In that light, and despite the fact that it does not presuppose the future of SLS/Orion one way or another, the ELA study is a vital and very necessary first step in restoring a semblance of sanity to America’s broader space goals.
Dating back to the 2009 Second Augustine Committee report which led to the cancellation of Project Constellation, a series of reports have all concluded that there is absolutely no way NASA can afford a human program of Mars exploration along the lines it is suggesting without a large and permanent increase to the agency’s budget. Furthermore, dancing over the watery grave of the International Space Station in 2025 or 2029 will not bridge the gap. In simply sidestepping the SLS/Orion issue and all its political baggage for the moment, and even nominally supporting it, the ELA study becomes a useful tool in providing a credible alternative scenario which gives the next President and the next NASA Administrator a strategic direction which may ultimately be adopted with considerably more enthusiasm than ARM.
On a slightly lower level, the ELA report re-introduces into the discussion the vital subject of fuel depots, cryogenic fluid storage and transfer, all indispensable elements of any real future in space which some within NASA and Congress have sought to quell at all costs in order to protect the Space Launch System, and for that the authors are to be commended.
Though cynics will no doubt conclude that ELA will simply become the latest addition to the growing stack of NASA policy reports which threaten to reach the Moon before we do, it might not be too much to hope that somebody, somewhere is paying attention, and begins asking the right questions.